Far East movement, in the West
By Joy Fang
Tuesday, Jul 17, 2012
The year was 2006, and Singapore-born actress Gwendoline Yeo had signed on for Desperate Housewives.
Then, she played an illegal immigrant, a maid who could barely speak English, and who would be groomed to become a surrogate mother for the child Gabrielle Solis (Eva Longoria) was longing for.
Fast forward to 2009 and Korean-American comedian Ken Jeong is a surprise hit - thanks to his Hangover role as the crass Mr Chow - winning an MTV Movie Award and garnering a nod at the Teen Choice Awards (for Breakout Male Star, no less).
A year later, and actress Maggie Q - of Vietnamese and Polish-Irish descent - makes a splash for nabbing the lead role in the Nikita TV-series remake. And last year, she starred in Priest as a tough warrior priestess on a mission.
If there is anything to be learnt here, it is that roles are opening up for Asian actors in the West.
The roles, which were once stereotypical and limited to those like Yeo's, even bordered on being eye-rollingly offensive at times.
A common complaint among actors was that Asians were often cast as the subservient, submissive ones. Or they were relegated to being, well, gongfu masters, a la Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan.
Today, Asians are regularly added to the mix in TV series and movies - on telly, for instance, they appear in a whole gamut of roles, ranging from Glee hottie Harry Shum Jr to C. S. Lee, who is excellent as the creepy intellectual Vince Masuka on Dexter; and Kal Penn and Charlyne Yi, doctors in the now-defunct series House.
And Asian celebrities my paper spoke to say that, increasingly, they are spotting greater opportunities in the West.
Chinese-American actor Archie Kao - who went from Power Ranger to CSI: Crime Scene Investigation lab tech Archie Johnson - told my paper that the film and TV industry in the West is facing an interesting time, with both East and West keen on "venturing into some common ground".
"As the world becomes more financially integrated, so too does it become more culturally and socially integrated in the entertainment business," said Kao, 41, whose parents hail from China and who has been on the CSI team since 2001.
A CHANGING WORLD
Indeed, Hollywood studios are increasingly joining hands with those in the East.
DreamWorks Animation and Disney, for instance, have already struck co-production deals in China. And in April, Disney, Marvel Studios and DMG Entertainment announced that Iron Man 3 would be co-produced there, noted the Wall Street Journal.
There is a lot of promise for Asian roles to broaden further, said Kao.
"As more Asians are developing creative content, they are also developing content in their likeness. I think that is helping us move forward," he added.
Korean-American actor Daniel Dae Kim is one Asian American who is making big waves right now.
The 43-year-old gained popularity after nabbing the part of Jin-Soo Kwon in supernatural drama Lost, but really made a breakthrough after he was cast as Chin Ho Kelly in the reboot of the 1960s police series, Hawaii Five-0. Chin, one of four leads in the series, is a lieutenant with ironclad integrity.
In town last month to promote the show, Kim told my paper that the industry is " changing for the better".
"The fact that you have a show like Hawaii-Five-0, where you have three Asian Americans in the lead cast, is a very big step forward," he said.
"We have a long way to go. But this is a step in the right direction."
His co-stars on the show include Grace Park, of Korean descent, and Japanese-American actor Masi Oka.
Emmy-winning, London- born actress Archie Panjabi acknowledged that, while there is still "a lack of ethnic actors in Hollywood", she is beginning to see a change.
Panjabi, 39, whose parents were from India, attributes the shift to the emerging younger generation of writers, who are much more open and colour- blind.
"I think the way forward is to write characters where culture is not the dominant influence in the development of their character," she said.
The actress plays investigator Kalinda Sharma in legal series The Good Wife. Anyone could have been cast for the role, she noted - white, black, Asian or otherwise.
Singapore's own Ng Chin Han, now based in Los Angeles, has made significant strides in Hollywood, where he starred in The Dark Knight (2008) and in disaster movie 2012 (2009).
Last year, he appeared in the thriller Contagion, which had marquee names like Kate Winslet, Matt Damon, Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow.
In the past, Ng said, studios would view Asian actors as interchangeable.
"They saw Asians as one big group of people. But they don't any more," said Ng, 41. "There is a heightened understanding of what it means to be Asian now, and Hollywood producers and directors are very mindful of that these days."
He agreed that, increasingly, there is a greater diversity of roles for Asians.
Then, there's the next generation of actors, who may get a bigger share of the pie than their predecessors.
TV shows like Glee, for instance, have been Asian-friendly from the start, casting Chinese- American actor Shum as the hunky Mike Chang in Season 1.
But it was Filipino singer-actress Charice Pempengco who was in the spotlight on Glee, as the first true-blue Asian to appear on the series, where she played winsome student Sunshine Corazon.
Glee, arguably, is helping shape the minds of the future. That audience is increasingly more diverse, and there will be more opportunities for those like Pempengco, 19, who will star alongside Salma Hayek in the upcoming comedy Here Comes The Boom.
Pempengco told my paper that she sees many Asian stars emerging in the West.
The success of hip-hop groups such as Far East Movement, for instance (their single Like A G6 topped the Billboard charts last year) show that Asians have more than a shot these days, she said.
"I want (Hollywood) to realise that all Asians are very talented... We can show people around the world that we've got swag," she said proudly.
For some, though, the about-face is still not happening fast enough.
Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi, 32, and Taiwanese-American singer-actor Van Ness Wu, 32, feel that Asians are often still being typecast.
Zhang said that she, along with Gong Li and Michelle Yeoh, were lucky that they had parts in the film adaptation of Memoirs Of A Geisha (2005), which gave them a stage. "But opportunities for Asian actors to do so are too few," she told my paper.
Wu cited last year's casting for Warner Bros' live-action take of Akira - based on anime artist Katsuhiro Otomo's graphic novel of the same name - as a shameful example of Hollywood whitewashing, and an obvious exclusion of Asian names.
"All the people they were casting were Caucasian. The names of the characters are Tetsuo and Kaneda...but they want Justin Timberlake and Robert Pattinson," said Wu, the scorn evident in his voice.
"It's really a slap in our faces," he added.